Little Lingling is her family’s secret.
The quiet 18-month-old is the second daughter of peasants in a remote part of Sichuan province who, like many Chinese, still yearn for a son.
Her parents violated China’s strict one-child policy when Lingling was born and hid her from nosy neighbors and prying officials. She pads around her family’s 100-year-old courtyard in layers and layers of bright cotton clothing.
Now her parents are expecting a third child in May.
If it’s another daughter, they will keep Lingling and put the newborn girl up for adoption.
But if it’s the boy they are hoping for, they will give Lingling away.
Thousands of years of tradition bear down on Lingling’s parents, who want a son to care for them in old age and to carry on the family name. The Chinese have a saying that when a daughter marries, she is thrown out like water. A son, on the other hand, must remain loyal to the end. Baby girls just a few days old are left on the steps of orphanages, sometimes with just their names scribbled on paper. Villagers whisper about others being abandoned by the roadside.
With a population of 1.2 billion growing at a rate of 20 million people a year, China imposes harsh fines on violators of the one-child policy. Lingling’s parents have yet to pay the fine of $725 for having a second child.
Coming up with even more money for a third child - a penalty of $1,200 - is out of the question for Lingling’s family. Average per-capita income in the western Chinese countryside is $230 a year.
So instead of paying two fines, the couple will pay only one - and give away one of their children.
“The influence of traditional culture is greater than the pain of abandoning a child,” explained Lingling’s 28-year-old father, Guangyong.
Before he and his wife agreed to discuss their predicament, they asked their full names and the exact location of their village not be published. Everyone has heard stories about the consequences of not complying with the one-child policy. Families have had their homes raided and their possessions confiscated for not paying the fines.
Leaders of their farming village do not know the little girl exists. Her family never takes her outside the compound that houses four generations.
The whole family has pooled its money to pay the fine for her parents. But they will wait until after the birth of the third baby - and the decision on who goes and who stays - before they come clean and pay the fine for having two children.
Village officials in charge of birth control matters have surprised the household with visits. Her grandfather lies, saying the child belongs to someone else who is paying him to raise her. He dotes on the red-cheeked girl, carrying her on his back and feeding her tangerine slices. When she rubs her eyes and whines from sleepiness, he cradles her close to his chest so she can sleep, gently patting her bottom.
The home of her clan is spacious but primitive. Shaded by tall bamboo, the house has electricity for lights and television, but a wok heated by wood for cooking. Her grandmother has to haul water from a pool of spring water behind the house and scrub clothes on a big wash-stone next to a hand-dug fish pond.
The weathered front door to the mud and plaster house with thick wooden beams is painted with big Chinese characters meaning “loyalty.”
At the end of January, the family assembled for Chinese New Year, a holiday as important for homecomings as Thanksgiving and Christmas are in the United States.
Lingling’s future was on everyone’s mind. As the adults warmed themselves around a metal bowl of glowing coals, they voiced different opinions. Huahua, a strong, outspoken woman, remained adamant about not giving away her niece.
“I want to stop him,” she said of her brother. “I told him to wait until I come back from Beijing and give her to me.”
Asked if there was any way they could keep all three of their children, Guangyong and Zhen were silent. Finally, the father said: “Cannot.”
Lingling’s parents would like for her to be adopted by someone who lives nearby.
“Certainly, I won’t abandon her or leave her in an orphanage,” said Guangyong. “We will ask around.”